It was a good, late fall night for flying. Dark, but clear and crisp, with light winds. I was flogging a nearly new Skyhawk from the Washington, D.C., area along V222 down to Asheville, N.C., for a weekend in the mountains. The flight was smooth, so far, with the autopilot-less hawk needing only a gentle nudge every now and then to maintain altitude and heading. So far, the needles told me I was keeping it right on the airways centerline.
The cabin heater was keeping us warm, the engine was droning along and my passenger was sleeping. We had another hour or so before starting to let down from our cruising altitude of 8000 feet. There was plenty of gas and ATC wasnt busy. The panel lights were turned way down. All was right with the world.
As I neared the end of a very long airway leg terminating at Hickory, N.C., I could see the citys lights ahead. I also could see one particular light, waving around-a searchlight. Some used car dealer having a sale, no doubt.
As we got closer, it started to dawn on me the guy running the search light was moving it around in a totally random fashion; there was no way to predict where he was going to point it next. There was only one consistency: He was weaving it back and forth across the airway. Soon, I was going to fly right over the top of it. I sat up and adjusted my seat.
What to do? The Skyhawk had a factory paint-job: Overall white with two-tone green. If he nailed me with the light, the reflection from the white wings over my head would destroy my night vision. On the other hand, because of the way this searchlight was being handled, there was every likelihood he wouldnt hit me. Further, if I turned to one side, which way to go? The searchlight was pretty much straddling the airway (shouldnt there be some rule against that, by the way?).
I mean, what are the odds of, say, a 50-foot diameter light beam some 6000 feet below me and being waved around in a totally random fashion would intersect my airplanes path? Turns out, they were pretty good.
In the end, I maintained altitude heading and speed. Just when I thought I had flown beyond the searchlights beam, it nailed me. What seemed like five seconds Im sure was only a fraction of that. But it was all it took. I wasnt blinded, but my night vision was gone in an instant. Since the Skyhawk wasnt affected, it kept droning along as if nothing had happened. I turned up the cockpit lights and slowly my night vision returned. By the time we started to descend for Asheville, things were back to normal.
But, if that searchlight had found me while I was on approach or not anticipating it, the outcome could have been much different. All of which just reinforces the old description of aviation: Hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with moments of stark terror.